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Take Two 

by Luke Baumgarten & r & Walk the Line & r & In general, biographical films (biopics) don't pay off well for me. (Disregard, for a moment, last week's Capote review.) I'm often quite interested in the historical personage, but as that life is stripped of depth onscreen and imbued with the most mundane of details, then made to struggle with the hokiest of personal demons, and eventually overcome them or die -- that personal interest dissolves into disillusionment.


Biographies of musicians are the worst because they portray every musician's story -- regardless of the instrument they play or the genre they create/inhabit/deconstruct/transcend -- exactly the same. Dude's a huge genius but is dogged by drug/alcohol abuse and/or an intense womanizing streak but is looked after by his one true love, who stands by him through affairs and liver failures not because of her strength, but because of her dependence on him. See: Ray, The Doors, De-lovely.


And damn if Walk the Line doesn't do it, too. Smoldering genius, addiction, fame, womanizing, a true love -- the conceit is a little different (the person Cash loves isn't the person he's married to), but it's all there. What allows Walk the Line to ultimately transcend claptrap -- indeed to succeed mightily -- rests squarely on the singular strength of June Carter (the person, not the character) and in the performances of Reese Witherspoon (as Carter) and Joaquin Phoenix (as Johnny Cash).


The great thing about biopics, unless they're directed by Oliver Stone, is that they tend to stay pretty close to their source material. (Perhaps musician biographies are filled with drugs and whores for exactly this reason; all interesting musicians are johns and users.) Thank God, then, for the historical personage of June Carter. She never really gave in to Cash's puppy dog routine; she was his friend, but her convictions kept him at arm's length, especially when he was deepest into his drug fog. Of course she did, because she had her own stuff to deal with: failed marriages, kids, bills. Excuse her if she doesn't take on one more messed up life, John. When Cash really needed her, though, she was there for him, though as a kind of surrogate mother, not as a lover.


It's always wonderful to see a film in which the female lead is so much more than a love interest. Carter was a rock, and upon that rock Cash ultimately rebuilt his life. It's strength personified -- not sexual power, just strength.


Witherspoon pulls it off with aplomb. She rolls around in the character, soaking up the songstress' bizarre twang, humor and sass. She exudes Carter's strength, even through tears, even while looking after children. It's her best work to date.


Phoenix is the exact opposite. He wallows in Cash's self-destructive tendencies; his already sleepy gaze takes on a glassiness that drowns out all memory of Cash's hawkish, pre-amphetamine magnetism. Rather than playing it like some whirling drug dervish, Phoenix's Cash comes across as exactly what he was: depressed and pitiful as all hell.


Credit the actors, then. More than that, though, credit the source. (Rated PG-13)

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